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The Wild Japanese Wild Cards

The Wild Japanese Wild Cards

The Wild Japanese Wild Cards

The Japanese Grand Prix always seems to throw up great races, as well as some big surprises. Always packed with competitive riders, throughout the years the race has catapulted a number of wild card riders to stardom by giving them the chance to demonstrate their skills on the biggest stage – the motorcycling World Championship.

World famous riders like Norick Abe, Dajiro Kato and Tohru Ukawa all made their names with impressive performances as wild cards, and they are not the only ones. Here we take the chance to look at some of the men who have made it big on the world stage after starring as Japanese wild cards.

Perhaps the most famous World Championship performance by a wild card came from Norick Abe at the Japanese Grand Prix of 1994. At the age of 19, Abe shot to fame after his memorable display in Suzuka where he pushed stars Mick Doohan and Kevin Schwantz all way before falling just a few laps from the chequered flag. Despite not having clinched the result his performance deserved, Abe had done enough to convince Kenny Roberts to give him a chance at his Marlboro Yamaha team. Scarcely two years later he was celebrating his first win at Suzuka, an achievement that turned him into a national hero as it was the first victory by a Japanese rider in the World Championship.

However, even before Abe's heroics, Japanese riders had already served notice of their potential when competing at their home circuits.

Noburu Ueda made his appearance on the world stage in 1991 when he joined the 125cc class. He made an immediate impression, winning the first race of the season, (the Japanese GP), after starting from pole. In his 12 seasons in the World Championship Ueda managed an impressive total of 13 wins and 39 podium finishes.

In 1992, ‘Taddy' Okada and Nobuatsu Aoki demonstrated their potential in the 250cc GP at Suzuka when they finished second and third respectively in a race won by Italian Luca Cadalora. The following season both riders made the jump to full-time World Championship riders by securing rides in the 250 championship.

In 1994 Tohru Ukawa burst on to the world stage by claiming an excellent third place in the 250 race at Suzuka after an intense battle with Okada and Loris Capirossi who finished just ahead of him. Although he did not manage to repeat the performance when competing as a wild card the following year when failed to finish, he was handed a World Championship ride for the 1996 season.

Sadanori Hikita produced another shock result in 1995 when he took third on home soil in the 250 GP, taking the flag behind German Ralf Waldmann and compatriot Nobu Aoki.

The much-missed Dajiro Kato also took full advantage of his chance when presented with a wild card to compete in his home race. In the 250 race of 1996, which also took place at Suzuka, Kato surprised everyone by coming home third behind Max Biaggi and Noriyasu Numata.

A year on, at the same circuit, Kato, Ukawa and Tetsuya Harada completed a memorable all Japanese podium in the 250cc race.

Kato underlined his extraordinary potential by walking away with victory again 12 months later and was joined on the podium by another rising Japanese starlet, Shinya Nakano. That was enough to secure the current Kawasaki star a World Championship ride and a further 12 months on he took his first 250cc victory at, where else (?!), Suzuka, the second Grand Prix of the season.

Yuki Takahashi introduced himself to the international audience with a surprise podium at Motegi in 2002. The Honda rider finished third behind Toni Elias and Marco Melandri in his debut Grand Prix performance. Meanwhile, that same year, Osamu Miyazaki and Daisaku Sakai took first and second in a rain-soaked 250cc race at Suzuka.

Hiroshi Aoyama finished in the points in four of his five races as a wild card, with an eighth place at Motegi in 2000 his best result. In 2003 he made it on to the podium for the first time at Suzuka after a weekend in which he had taken pole position, coming home in second place. After three seasons competing as an invited rider, he finally was given his opportunity in the World Championship as a permanent member of the quarter-litre class.

The undoubted strength of Japanese riders when competing at home is underlined by the statistic that in the last 13 seasons, the Japanese Grand Prix has seen no fewer than nine all-Japanese podiums in the 125 and 250 classes – a fact in which wild card riders have played a major role.

MotoGP, 2005

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